I’m Nikki Watson, a blind horse rider and general horse enthusiast – I’m 53 and I live in Devon in the UK with my husband Hal, my guide dog Quincey, and our three horses Florence, Peregrine and Mr. Mayo.
I was born with a recessive form of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), therefore I have never had good eyesight, and have been totally blind for a long time now. This has caused me a few problems with my equestrian aspirations. But while some people might think you can be blind or you can be horsey, but under no circumstances can you be both, I say: I beg to differ!
A long-time love of horses
As long as I can remember I have loved horses. There was never a Eureka moment when I looked at a horse and thought “Wow!” It was just always there, like a seed had been sown in my soul before I was born. (Strange really because I don’t come from a horsey family… in fact, my Mum was terrified of horses!)
I love all animals, but with horses, it’s different. I don’t actually have to ride very often to be happy, but I do need to be able to touch, smell, and interact with them. Horses feed my soul and ground me. Remove me from horses for, say, three weeks, and I become very unhappy and unsettled.
As soon as I could talk, I talked about horses. As soon as I could walk, I trotted about on my imaginary pony. If a toy, book, or game didn’t include a horse, I wasn’t really interested. I finally convinced my parents to let me have riding lessons when I was 9 – and I desperately wanted my own pony!
I also wanted to work with horses. Sadly this was not to be. The equestrian world, although not entirely hostile, is not always amenable to the specific needs of the blind and visually impaired. Many people and organisations claim that it is too dangerous for blind and visually impaired people to ride or handle horses. They say they would be breaking all kinds of health and safety regulations if they allowed it, and their insurance wouldn’t cover any accidents.
This isn’t necessarily true. Yes, riding is a high-risk sport, but then, when you are blind, just going to the shop is high risk. Also, as long as we are able to understand the risks, and give our informed consent, then as adults, isn’t it up to us?
And what if you are already working in the equestrian industry before you lose your sight?
Just as blindness and visual impairment can happen to anyone at any time of life, so can anyone, regardless of their personal circumstances, be bitten by the horse bug.
Building a community within the horse community
I’m incredibly lucky. OK, so I didn’t get to work with horses, but, whilst I never got my childhood pony, I have now owned horses for over 30 years. However, it hasn’t always been easy.
Being blind can be lonely and isolating, as can not having a kindred spirit to share your passion with. So, I set out to form a support network for other blind riders and those who support us. You’d be surprised how many of us there are out there! From weekly riders at local riding schools, members of Riding for the Disabled groups, people who have lost their sight but were horsey anyway, to those of us who are lucky enough to own our own.
Whether it’s hacking, dressage, driving, or show-jumping, there is a blind person somewhere who loves it. So, if you are blind or visually impaired and love horses please know you are not alone.
Nikki is a blind horse rider and the founder of several groups to facilitate networking for visually impaired horse enthusiasts and supporters, including Blind Riders UK, and Blind Riders Network on Facebook and @BlindRidersUK on Twitter. Her goal is to break down barriers and make the equestrian world more accepting of, inclusive of, and accessible to blind and visually impaired people. She also writes a personal blog that journals her and Hal’s adventures in looking after their horses. You can also find Nikki on Twitter at @TrotOnBlindly and on Instagram at @PooPickingInTheDark.